Exploring the Red Planet

NASA’s Curiosity gets close to landing on Mars

It takes a while to get over 90 million km away from earth. Although NASA’s rover Curiosity hit the road for Mars at the end of November, 2011, the robot isn’t expected to land on the planet until August 6th of this year. In the past, rovers like this one had set out to look for evidence of water on Mars but this time Curiosity will be keeping a look out for any spots on the planet that may have been particularly hospitable for life. Curiosity is scheduled to be stationed up there for the next 2 years where it will spend the majority of its time exploring Gale Crater which scientists believed was formed about 3 and a half billion years ago during a particularly tumultuous time for our solar system.

The crater’s most impressive feature is Mount Sharp, a 5 km high pile of debris that rises from its centre. While scientists aren’t exactly sure how this structure was formed, they suspect it’s composed of the sediment that used to fill the crater. The area is a particularly special geological hotspot. As NASA scientist John P. Grotzinger explains, “There is no place on Earth you can go to get the whole history at once… at Gale you don’t need to reconstruct the layers. You can see how they go from older to younger. You’ve got time’s arrow always pointed in the right direction. It’s all laid out very simply”.

One thing that might not be so simple, is the actual landing of the robot on Mars. While NASA will attempt to land Curiosity on a flat surface as close as possible to Mount Sharp, the exact landing spot will only be determined by the bot’s final steer towards Mars. Check out the video above to get a sense of the challenge Curiosity’s got ahead of itself!


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